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Decommissioning in Northern Ireland will get a higher profile once other elements of the peace process have been resolved.
Colin McInnes, reader in international politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, has been researching processes for removing illegal military equipment from Northern Ireland. "At the moment, the political issues are more prominent, with the three strands of talks going on and the aim of holding a referendum in May. But if all of that goes as planned, decommissioning will become a high-profile issue again," he says.
Getting rid of the paramilitaries' vast caches of guns, explosives and ammunition is an essential part of the peace process. But linking it to IRA-Sinn Fein participation in peace talks, as happened under John Major's government, held up the process. "It was not an issue at the time of the Downing Street declaration in December 1993, but in 1994 and 1995 the government started to demand decommissioning as a condition of allowing Sinn Fein into talks," Dr McInnes says.
There are several interpretations of John Major's apparently self-defeating emphasis on the issue. The most convincing, Dr McInnes argues, is that with a shaky parliamentary majority he had constantly to consider right-wing opinion in his party, whose historic raison d'etre is unionism - and particularly within a fractious Cabinet.
US senator George Mitchell, who was brought in to help start the peace process, proposed running decommissioning in parallel with talks. The Blair government has downplayed the issue to get talks under way.
There is agreement on who should do the decommissioning. "A commission headed by the Canadian general John de Chastelain, who was a member of the Mitchell commission, will handle the job. The people who hold the guns, explosives and bullets will either hand them in to the commission or destroy them themselves, provided the commission is able to verify the destruction," Dr McInnes says.
Those handing in weapons will be exempt from prosecution for illegal possession, and there will be no forensic examination: "This was agreed as a confidence-building measure."
Dr McInnes says the need for a special commission is evidence of the complications and potential pitfalls of the peace process. "Almost anywhere else in the world, the receiving body for decommissioned weapons is the police force. But distrust of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is so deep-rooted in the nationalist and republican communities that this is impossible," he says.
Indeed, Sinn Fein has argued that the RUC, the one British police force that has always been armed, should be disarmed as well. "Nobody else is arguing this, so the likely outcome is that it will become a bargaining counter," Dr McInnes says.
Once decommissioning starts, verification will be crucial, Dr McInnes says. "The intelligence services say they have an estimate of how much weaponry is in the hands of the paramilitaries, but only an estimate. If they say the IRA has 120 tonnes of material and the IRA says 'no, we have only 100 tonnes', the question of how that is to be resolved is unclear."
It is likely to be an uneasy process, continually disrupted by the distrust fostered by centuries of conflict. "We can expect to see relatively minor technical issues around decommissioning, which would under other circumstances be resolved with ease by people of goodwill, taking on serious political significance. George Mitchell said that any reasonable person should be able to devise a solution for Northern Ireland, but that the politics on the ground simply doesn't work like that," says Dr McInnes.*
Research papers can be found on the THES Internet site: http//ww.thesis.co.uk.